Under the Hood

Speaking A Second Language Fights Alzheimer's; Plus 3 Other Ways To Strengthen Cognitive Function

The older we get, the more susceptible we become to age-related diseases such as Alzheimer's. Memory loss and confusion have long been considered part of the aging process, but there are ways to age-proof our brains. Researchers from Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan have found speaking a second language or more can protect the brain against degenerative disorders.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, observed that constantly using two languages makes the brain work harder, which makes it more resistant to aging. People who were bilingual had better functional connectivity in their brains, specifically in frontal regions, which helped speakers maintain better mental agility.

Read More: Maple Syrup May Protect Brain From Alzheimer’s And Other Neurodegenerative Disease

"The metabolic connectivity analyses crucially supported the neuroprotective effect of bilingualism by showing an increased connectivity in the executive control and the default mode networks in the bilingual, compared with the monolingual, AD patients," wrote the researchers, in the abstract.

In other words, bilinguals showed an increase in functional connections between areas of the brain that are involved in executive control — a set of cognitive processes that include working memory, cognitive flexibility, etc. — and also key neural networks.

Previous research has noted having more reserve brain power helps compensate for age-related decreases in thinking and memory, and may even protect against declines related to Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. In a 2013 study, researchers asked older people who grew up bilingual to do an attention-switching task, a skill that fades with age. Bilingual seniors were better at the task; they were able to sort colors and shapes better than the monolingual seniors. Brain scans revealed the brains of the monolingual seniors were working harder to complete the task, while bilingual seniors' brain were more efficient, comparable to those of young adults.

Although several studies have proven the benefits of bilingualism, researchers from the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan, sought to explore the mechanism behind this protective effect.

The research team performed PET scans — an imaging test that allows your doctor to check for diseases in our body — and memory tests on 85 seniors with Alzheimer's to look at their brain metabolism, or the activity of brain cells, and neural connectivity. Forty-five were bilinguals, speaking both Italian and German, and 40 were monolinguals, speaking only Italian or German. Those who spoke both Italian and German were five years older on average.

Bilingual participants showed more signs of brain damage, displaying less brain cell activity than their monolingual counterparts. Despite reduced brain metabolism, bilinguals did not fare worse in memory tests, scoring three to eight times higher, on average.

Read More: How To Reduce Risk Of Alzheimer's Disease And Age-Related Memory Loss, According To Neuroscience

This implies speaking a second language helped patients cope with the symptoms of dementia more effectively than monolinguals. It sets people up for better "neural compensation," when the brain copes with its own degeneration and loss of neurons by finding alternative pathways through how to function.

Spanish books Science finds speaking a second language or more may protect the aging brain from Alzheimer's disease. Photo courtesy of Pixabay, Public Domain

The study also suggests kids who learn a second language, and use it often, will benefit in old age.

"Delaying the onset of dementia is a top priority of modern societies, and the present in vivo neurobiological evidence should stimulate social programs and interventions to support bilingual or multilingual education and the maintenance of the second language among senior citizens," wrote the researchers.

Protecting the brain from Alzheimer's is all about living a healthy lifestyle, which includes our diet.

If you don't have the time or facility to learn a second language, but still want to age-proof your brain, consider turning to your diet. Below are three foods to add to your menus that may ward away Alzheimer's symptoms.

Fruit And Vegetables

It's no surprise fruits and vegetables are good for our health, especially the brain. A 2014 study from the Salk Institute of Biological Studies concluded a plant compound, fisetin, found in some fruits may prevent Alzheimer's disease, and protect against memory loss. Fisetin is commonly found in strawberries, mangoes, cucumber with skin, and tomatoes, among many others. In the study, researchers noted mice who were genetically programmed to develop Alzheimer's, and fed water with fisetin, showed no sign of cognitive decline. There were anti-inflammatory molecules that were not in the brains of those mice who developed alzheimer's.

Berries

Blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries all contain high concentrations of antioxidants, known to boost brain power and fight off harmful free radicals. Previous research has noted eating blueberries improved memory and improved access to words and concepts in a group of adults who showed signs of mild cognitive impairment — a risk factor for Alzheimer's. Blueberries, along with other fruits, may help patients who already show signs of mental impairment.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Salmon is known as one of the best foods that delivers high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Adding foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help boost brain power by reducing inflammation, lowering the risk of heart disease, and improving brain memory and performance. They also may fight mood swings and depression, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Source: Perania D, Farsad M, Ballarini T et al. The impact of bilingualism on brain reserve and metabolic connectivity in Alzheimer's dementia. PNAS. 2017.

See Also:

The Pill That Could Protect The Human Brain From Degenerative Disease

Vaccine Prevents Tau Protein Buildup To Stop Alzheimer’s In Its Tracks

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